Astronauts will print part of a human knee on a 3D printer in space

Bioprinted body parts could prove vital to future treatments, and scientists are doing everything possible to test it. NASA, Redwire, and the US Armed Forces Medical University Biotechnology Center (4DBio3) are sending a new 3D printer to the International Space Station, the 3D BioFabrication Facility (BFF), to bioprint a human knee meniscus in orbit and study the result on Earth. Ideally, this would lead to a cure for the meniscal injuries that American soldiers experience all too often.

Redwire hopes to 3D print entire organs in space, though it characterizes that as a “long-term” goal. The company is also using NASA’s Advanced Plant Habitat for a project to identify plant genes suitable for space. Another study will use NASA’s furnace to create and demonstrate passive cooling for electronics in low gravity.

The BFF printer will fly to the ISS aboard a launch vehicle that will launch on November 6 from NASA’s Wallops Island Spaceport. The mission will carry three additional payloads.

This is not NASA’s first space 3D printer. Last year, NASA brought a Redwire printer to the ISS to demonstrate printing lunar soil. This technology could one day help lunar colonists build homes without transporting large amounts of materials from Earth. The bioprinter, of course, has a more immediate practical significance. If the research is successful, doctors will be able to replace damaged body parts without resorting to organ donation or inorganic implants.